Stanley Spencer: This green and pleasant land

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Stanley Spencer saw the common English garden in a warm and sensuous light that even war could not destroy. Adrian Hamilton considers an exhibition of unheralded work by an unusually gentle master

We all know Stanley Spencer, or think we do.

With his cumbersome figures clambering out of their graves and the good denizens of his home village, Cookham, gazing upwards to God, it is rather too easy to pigeonhole him as an English visionary in the line of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, a painter with a fiercely personal belief, too far outside the mainstream to be considered an artist of the international stature of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

A novel exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire should make us think again. It is a showing of Spencer's views of English gardens, which he painted throughout his life. They have been rather neglected, beside his visions of the residents of Cookham as the children of God. This makes it the first such show of its kind and that has enabled the gallery to draw widely from galleries and private owners eager to show off this side of the painter's creativity.

In one sense, the works fit in neatly with our conception of this extraordinary artist. They remain faithful to Spencer's Cookham roots and they celebrate all those things that he thought of as quintessentially English – the order, the gentleness and the fondness that the English feel for their gardens. Not for him the great vistas of French regimentation, the lusciousness of the Italian or the colour of the Latin American. Here is the England of Berkshire, where gardens have hedges and fences to ensure privacy, where the lawns are mowed and the beds filled with cottage flowers.

It is, as the exhibition argues, in its own way as much of a vision of godliness as Spencer's figurative art, nature tamed but also spreading out of its confines, the personal struggling to find and keep order in the greater scheme of things. Look at the way the fences and staves are positioned and the hedges trimmed and you see contrast between man and the natural world. There is also a form of resolution.

And yet Spencer's pictures of gardens are different from his peopled visions, several of which this exhibition also displays. This difference lies partly in the handling of paint. In the figurative paintings, the inhabitants are painted boldly, their clothes made solid with strong and flat colours. In the garden paintings, the vegetation is brought to life with feathery strokes and delicate colours, while the walls of the cottages and gardens are painted with near-obsessive precision. Brought up in a building household, Spencer knew all about the textures of brick, wood, cement and rendering, and he applied that knowledge assiduously.

He used it partly, of course, to provide a contrast between the fullness of flowers and the solidity of building, between that created by man and that created by nature. But it is also a framing device that he adopts with care, to give structure to his compositions. In Greenhouse and Garden, from 1937, Spencer uses the open door filling the right-hand side of the picture both to provide the contrast between inside and outside and to counterpoint the rich, rounded, cultivated onions hung by the door on the left and the uncultivated greenery in the orchard seen through the door. It is an extraordinary study, not just in composition but in the different textures of the glowing onions, the painted door and the grasses.

Sensuality is another feature which marks these pictures out from Spencer's figurative work. Spencer was a man who loved women and who lived a complicated personal life with them, as Pam Gems' 1996 National Theatre play, Stanley, portrayed. His old clothes and the battered pram (present in the exhibition) in which he transported his easel and paints may have made him seem a solitary eccentric, but he had a very keen and grounded eye for the sensuality of flowers. His close-up of poppies, from 1938, with the writhing stems around, is a work of pure sexuality, as is Red Magnolia, from the same year. Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley, of 1942, painted while staying with a new "woman friend", Daphne Charlton, with its circular bed in a rectangle of mossy green, is all too clear in its allusion.

You can make too much of the nature versus man concept. Spencer did not really see nature as a wild, uncontrolled force, kept at bay by the fence and hedges of the English garden and tamed within them. He saw the garden as a very English way of cosseting nature, of taking part in its goodness. There is a wonderful picture of new houses, Cookham Rise (1938), showing garden plots staked out in rows. Other painters might depict it as an intrusion on nature; Spencer sees it as a participation.

In Cottages at Burghclere (1930), nature is shown as spreading beyond the white picket fences, the topped yew trees bending away from regimentation, the dividing hedge waving in tune with the thatched roof of the cottage on one side while the whiskery branches of the trees are set against the horizontal wooden slats of the house on the other. It is a masterpiece of texture and affection.

Another masterpiece, Rock Garden, Cookham Dene, from 1942, has the garden beds leading comfortably from clumped richness to ordered fields and a wide, flat horizon of trees and farmland – England at ease with itself and nature as war once again threatened.

War, in which Spencer took part as a medical orderly, ambulance man and infantryman in the first world war, intrudes, in the ordered lines of hay stacks in The Red House, Wangford (1926) and the ranks of white fences in Cookham Rise: Cottages (1936). But with Spencer, as with his contemporary Paul Nash, war had the effect on the artist not of darkening his pictures of England, but of making his gardens and landscapes, as people, all the more treasured and fragile.

When Plymouth council commissioned Spencer, by then recognised as an important British artist, to paint the city as it emerged from some of the worst bombing suffered anywhere in Britain, they expected a vision of new buildings and new hope. Instead they got Hoe Garden Nursery, a view containing peeling paint and lopsided frames. That was how Spencer saw Britain's survival from war – not all new and fresh, but as the dogged continuance of the old and the make-do.

It left him marginalised by modernism. But look at these pictures, or the figurative paintings with which the exhibition concludes, and you do not need to be a patriotic Englishman to feel that here was the equal of any British artist of the 20th century.

Compton Verney, which follows the seductive principle of having two shows each season, accompanies the Spencer exhibition with an exhibition focusing on the great Northumbrian landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown, the man who changed the country's parklands from continental regimentation to architecturally-inspired vistas, through a half-century of industrial-scale re-ordering of river, trees and hills.

His work is a world away from Spencer's cottage gardens. Nature here is re-organised on the grandest and most carefully planned canvas. Brown was criticised by traditionalists at the time and roundly abused by the romantic young worshippers of the sublime in nature at his end. But more than a hundred of his designs are still with us, in part or whole, including at Compton Verney itself. The show gives a good explanation of how he went about it.

These exhibitions offer two good reasons to take a summer outing to this splendid Robert Adam house and grounds in Warwickshire, which opened as a gallery less than a decade ago and has since specialised in such imaginative small shows as these.

Stanley Spencer and the English Garden and Capability Brown and the Landscape of Middle England, Compton Verney, Warwickshire (www.comptonverney.org.uk; 01926 645 500) to 2 October

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